Friday, 9 April 2010

Screen Saviour

About this time last year my world was shattered... Or should I say my laptop screen was shattered. Here in rural Nigeria, as a VSO, it amounts to the same thing. Our laptops are not only tools for work, but provide entertainment in the form of music or films in the dark, NEPA-less nights, and allow us to access the outside world when we’re lucky enough to have an internet connection.

However today I discovered that a laptop with a broken screen is incredibly valuable... to a blind person.

In its ojective to make its computer training classes accessible to the blind and visually impaired, Fantsuam Academy is working with two inspirational students studying Special Education at the University of Jos, Femi and Obeya. With support from VSO, which encourages all its partners to “mainstream” disability, and Freedom Scientific, publishers of the market-leading screen-reading application ‘JAWS’ (Job Access With Speech) the Fantsuam Academy will be offering subsidised JAWS training courses from June 2010. Sight impaired graduates of the JAWS course will then be able to then join Fantsuam’s regular computer Certificate and Diploma classes.

In the Fantsuam compound with University of Jos students Femi and Obeya

I first met Obeya when Jonathan invited me to the Old Students Association programme at his former school, Gindiri School for the Blind.

Jonathan (left) and Obeya (right) with other former Gindiri students.

Obeya is partially sighted and before securing his place on the Diploma programme at the University worked for an NGO for the disabled in his home state of Benue (home of the world’s best mangoes, but that’s another story). I told him about Fantsuam’s GAIYA volunteer programme which he then made time to attend when he was passing through Kaf and we kept in touch.

When in Jos last year I visited Obeya at the University where he introduced me to Femi, and Femi introduced me to JAWS. And that was really the start of it. This week Femi and Obeya visited Kafanchan to demonstrate JAWS to Fantsuam’s instructors, my blind friend Jonathan from Kagoro, and Steven, a blind microfinance client who works at the local Kafanchan rehabilitation centre.

Femi and Obeya with a group of Fantsuam’s instructors, Fantsuam intern and my blind friend Jonathan

But let’s get back to the screen: the screen on Femi’s computer is blank. Black, broken, caput. But that doesn’t make any difference to Femi. He only needs to listen to his computer and have a working keyboard.

The class sees the screen projected onto the wall behind Femi. His own laptop screen is blank.

Obeya doesn’t have his own computer at all although he’s desperately trying to raise the N25,000 (about £100-£120) to buy a ‘fairly used’ computer for himself.

There are another 50 visually impaired students at the University of Jos, most of which are enrolled in its Special Education course which is a leader in the country. However there is NOT ONE computer in the University’s computer or CISCO labs that has screen reader software installed on it. Femi is the ONLY visually impaired student that has his own computer.

Anyone who has blind friends or worked with the blind knows that the impact on daily life can be pretty minimal when equipped with the aids now widely available in the West. Indeed even without those aids, normal life resumes as I discovered on my visit to Gindiri School for the Blind in Plateau State.

Hostel life for Gindiri students is exactly the same as for their sighted counterparts around the country

But those aids are expensive and out of the reach of virtually every visually impaired Nigerian. Obeya has spent years trying to afford an old Braille machine to help him write and make notes despite both a Braille machine and a tape recorder being a requirement for all visually impaired students at the University.

Now please consider: how many of you out there have ever seen a computer discarded or yourself written-off a laptop because the screen is broken in some way? I myself know that replacing my own screen cost almost a third of the price of the basic computer.

So – before you write off – or see someone writing off a computer because its screen is broken – think twice. And if you can’t get the old computer out to Nigeria, please ensure that it gets to someone blind near you who perhaps can’t afford one of their own.

As for me – I’m learning JAWS. Next time my screen goes – I won’t need it either!

Pictures: Jonathan and Steven get a private lesson in JAWS from Femi and Obeya; Femi and Obeya pose with Fantsuam Academy instructors.

Femi and Obeya’s visit coincided with that of leading This Day journalist Reuben Buhari who travelled down from Kaduna to find out more about Fantsuam Foundation.

(Left) Reuben's (right) surprise at seeing and hearing a screen reading application for a first time; (Right) Reuben takes time to interview Steven, one of Fantsuam’s microfinance clients who hopes to benefit from the JAWS course in June.

AFTERWORD: The biggest cost of delivering the JAWS course will be the course notes in Braille. We would like to give the Materials Centre at Gindiri the opportunity to produce them however we would be pleased for any support - financial or in kind - that would enable us to produce these vital course notes for the students. All suggestions gratefully received!

Friday, 2 April 2010

Seeing the world through new eyes

I flew into New York for the first time on a crisp, clear blue early Spring day in 1981. The flight path went directly across Manhattan and I’ll never forget how my excitement at seeing the stunning skyline of skyscrapers was tinged with disappointment in that ‘it looks just like it does on the television’.

That is one thought that I can almost guarantee will never cross the mind of a visitor to Nigeria, Nollywood aficionados excepted of course.

Seeing something for the first time, whether it’s dramatic alpine scenery, the hustle and bustle of a busy street, or a village in rural Nigeria, has always been a delight for me. I think that some of the motivation to come and volunteer was to be able to see things for the first time. Things that I wouldn’t have seen before on the television or in movies.

I’ve been in Nigeria for almost 17 months now and, as an excursion to nearby, but very rural Zakwa today proved, there are still always new sights to see, and new experiences to savour. It’s not my first time to Zakwa, but it was for Teleri who accompanied me to the dedication in the local ECWA church of Fantsuam’s Field Officer Grace’s four children.

The day involved a lot of walking but thankfully a lot less waiting than your usual Nigerian ‘event’.

Here are some pictures of a typical weekend day in rural Nigeria.

After a 20 minute dusty walk up from the main road through the harmattan haze we arrived in the wide, rambling village of Zakwa, and met up with Field Officer Sarah – I knew where her house was (at least I thought I did) and she knew where the church was.

... meeting up with friends and neighbours along the way – busy with weekend chores or on their way into church.

After the minister regained his composure having realised there were two white women in his congregation, the dedication for Grace’s family began about half way through the 2.5 hour service.

After the speeches, the drums start to roll and the choir starts to sing as the congregation file up the aisle to drop their Naira in the bucket and congratulate the family. Richie, son of another Field Officer snaps the occasion with his phone.

After church we followed the crowd, many carrying their chairs from the church, across the fields to Grace’s house where a party was taking off complete with canopies and PA system. Teleri and I were invited into the house for some tasty jollof rice and beans porridge washed down with a mineral before being ushered outside to join the rest of Grace’s Fantsuam colleagues under the marquee whilst the kids jostled for a spot with a good view of proceedings.

And then the programme began with the cultural dancers....

.. and the professional ones, i.e. the ones dancing for money. Notice the fistful of notes about to disburse over my shoulder.. Before Grace and her family step up for the official family group photo.

We left before ‘Item 7’ on the programme (well, we’d already had ours earlier) and accompanied Sarah to pay a return visit to her mother-in-law who’d sheltered me and ten small children from a rainstorm almost one year previously.

Passing through compounds and greeting her friends, we had some fine views of this pretty village half of which surprisingly (since it's about 20 minutes drive away) comes under the Kagoro chiefdom.

Awww cute little piglets... and not so cute little girl with sharpened hoe.. Children in Zakwa employ impressive tools in the forage for sweet potatoes. In Kpak Kagoro they just use sticks.

Soon we arrived at Sarah's mother in law's house: she and her family greeted us warmly, grateful for the pictures that I had sent with Sarah following our last visit. However this proud kaka insisted that I retake her picture, this time with both of her slippers on.

As soon as the camera comes out, the kids line up to be snapped behind a large basin of filling, the by-product resulting when extracting the locus bean from its pods..
But it's getting late and it's a long walk back to the main road so Teleri and I say our goodbyes and start off back down the dusty track.